Winter 2001

Newman, the Councils, and Vatican II

Ian Ker

“[T]he continuing identity of an idea is not conserved by remaining static . . . although it has to undergo change, this is not for the sake of change itself . . . —but in order for the idea to remain the same. It is this kind of change which Newman terms development.”

In March 1831 Newman was invited to contribute a history of Councils to a new library of theological works. That summer he began work on the project; but by August he had decided that the Eastern Councils would need a volume to themselves. He told one of the editors of the library that what was needed was “a connected history of the Councils . . . not taking them as isolated, but introducing so much of Church History as will illustrate and account for them.”1
The comment is significant for two reasons. First, it makes the point that Newman was a historical theologian who was convinced that theology should not be separated from history. Thus: “What light would be thrown on the Nicene Confession merely by explaining it article by article? To understand it, it must be prefaced by a sketch of the rise of the Arian heresy . . . .” This does not mean, of course, that Newman identified the theologian with the so-called historical theologian: he was not envisaging always “combining history and doctrinal discussion,” and in this case he was thinking of reserving detailed discussion of specific theological topics for notes in an appendix to the work.2

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1. The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, eds., Charles Stephen Dessian et al. (London: Nelson, 1961–72; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), ii. 352–3. Hereafter cited as LD.

2. LD, ii. 352–3.